BOOMER's David L. Robbins and Sherrie Page eat at Stuzzi, then share an intriguing story of how the recipe of a mobster's favorite dish made its way to Richmond.
STUZZI: 1 N. BELMONT AVE., RICHMOND.
In 1972, Colombo mobster Crazy Joey Gallo set out for an evening in Manhattan’s Little Italy to celebrate his 43rd birthday. He attended a dance show with his wife, kids and bodyguard, working up a mighty appetite that could be slaked only by his favorite dish, served only in enemy territory. Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry served a scungilli (conch) with tomato sauce that made Joey’s caution succumb to his appetite. But a hit man for a rival contingent inside the famiglia sat at Umberto’s bar. More gunmen appeared. A battle ensued that left Crazy Joey mortally wounded, face up in Mulberry Street
THE SAME DISH … WITHOUT GUNFIRE
This same compelling scungilli, passed down inside another noted Italian family, can be had in Richmond with no risk of gunfire. Pietro Caserta, owner and operator of Stuzzi, on Belmont Avenue near Carytown, hails from a clan of chefs and cuisine innovators who for more than a century have played key roles in popularizing Neopolitan cooking, first in Manhattan, then across America.
“My grandfather was born in Naples,” says Pietro, “and it was his scungilli recipe Joey Gallo died for.”
Pietro credits his Caserta lineage with many firsts in bringing Italian cuisine to the U.S. Both branches of his family stem from Naples, where in the late 19th century they were renowned as makers of the mozzarella cheese that topped the first pizza. Later, Pietro’s uncle earned the sobriquet, “Jimmy Mozzarella.” Recently, Pietro’s nephew, Clemenza Caserta, won fifth place on the televised cooking competition Hell’s Kitchen. And still another uncle touts himself as one of only a dozen monzu chefs in the world, “monzu” being an honorific bestowed on only an elite few master chefs in Southern Italy.
Pietro’s knowledge of Italian-American cuisine and its history is encyclopedic. He tosses off the names of the five Mulberry Street restaurants where the cuisine was born (Angelo’s, Grotto Azurra, Villa Penza, Marconi’s, Nova Villa), as well as influential dishes and the restaurants responsible for them (including the first pizza made in America, at Lombardi’s). He’s also a font of remarkable New York Mafiosi food stories, including the demise of Crazy Joey.
SERVING DELICIOUS LITTLE THINGS
Pietro chose the name Stuzzi, because it means “delicious little things.” He’s brought to Richmond the tastes of Naples and New York, sticking to the classic Neapolitan dishes that his family pioneered.
The centerpiece of Stuzzi’s menu is also the focal point of the restaurant’s interior: a large brick wood-fired pizza oven. Handmade with lava stone and ash from Mount Vesuvius, the oven cooks pizzas in 60 seconds. They trend to the gourmet, with key ingredients imported from Naples, including San Marzano tomato sauce and low-gluten flour made for wood-burning ovens. The mozzarella is made in-house from the venerable family recipe.
Pietro’s philosophy on cooking is summed up in his menu description for spaghetti carbonara: “Made the right way.”
On any given night, then, he can be found marching among the tables and kitchen staff, making sure everything is being done the right way. His passion informs every meal, from imported ingredi- ents and food presentation to snappy service. The reliable staple of Stuzzi is the pizza, always a delicacy. But patrons are well advised to delve deeper into Pietro’s traditional entrées and appetizers, all made with care, confidence and artistry.
STANDOUTS AMONG STANDOUTS
One superb and economical way to sample Stuzzi’s selection is the nightly fixed-price, three-course meal. At $25 per person with ample table wine (a full-bodied, round red on our BOOMER night out), the meal for two includes three appetizers, one pizza and a pasta entrée. Each dish came with its own personality, but what stood out were two plates ordered off the regular menu: of course, Joey Gallo’s scungilli with spicy tomato sauce, and a memorable puttanesca that featured a savory marinara with the sharp, pleasing aftertaste of Naples’ finest valley olives and capers.
The tastes and comforts of Stuzzi are, indeed, memorable – yes, to the point of inducing cravings. You’ll want to go back to explore the full menu or satisfy an urge for some favored classic Italian dish. Fortunately, you’ll be in no danger of spending too much or having a lackluster meal.
Bring the whole famiglia.
Best-selling author and BOOMER columnist David L. Robbins’ latest novel is The Devil’s Waters. Visit him at DavidLRobbins.net.
Sherrie Page is a freelance writer who lives and dines in the museum district. A registered nurse and health teacher at St. Catherine’s School, Sherrie frequently writes on topics of health and parenting.